Getting A Communal Conversation Started


Remember the old jokes that began, “A rabbi and a priest walk into a bar…?”

That pairing is still more likely than bringing a chasid from Williamsburg, a Modern Orthodox accountant from Riverdale, a Russian programmer from Staten Island, a Jewish Buddhist artist from Park Slope and an intermarried realtor from Suffolk County to sit down and discuss Jewish identity.

Reading through the recent UJA-Federation of New York population study of New York, we can picture 5 ½ “distinct” Jewish tribes here. That’s the way Scott Shay, the study’s chairman, describes it. There’s the engaged non-Orthodox, unengaged non-Orthodox, haredim (or, ultra-Orthodox), Russians and Modern Orthodox.

The half-tribe includes people who identified as Jewish without any Jewish parent and no formal conversion.

The big question is: How can we all fit around the same table? Once we’re there, what do we talk about that will propel us toward greater understanding?

I don’t know anyone who can relate to or understand all 5.5 tribes. We know the stereotypes: the ultra-Orthodox are insular, the Modern Orthodox are confused, the Russians are Jewishly ignorant, the engaged non-Orthodox are self-righteous, and the non-engaged non-Orthodox are indifferent. And the half-tribe?  No one understands what they’re about.

This can serve as a starting point for our communal discussion. Each tribe can add to the Jewish discourse. We have many successful partnerships with Israel and other countries, connecting the global Jewish community. It’s time for our intra-Jewish dialogue to provide a voice to all tribes. Often, we set up our table with some tribes missing. We’re most comfortable talking to those who are the most like us. We’re reluctant to venture into unfamiliar territory.

How do we ensure that the different tribes stand together at that symbolic Sinai? We must let each tribe contribute something unique to the common Jewish narrative.

The haredim can give us a lesson in faith. The Modern Orthodox can serve as a bridge. Russians can teach the importance of peoplehood and Israel. Engaged non-Orthodox can be innovative. The endangered species, the unengaged non-Orthodox, can provide a unique teaching experience by showing how reluctant one can be to engage in Jewish life, traumatized by past negative experiences or lack of Jewish memory. 

It’s up to us to create a communal conversation, to develop a language that focuses not on how to be Jewish but why. Our problem is not the absence of engaging teachers, but their lack of mission and urgency. I advocate for some equitable distribution of communal resources. Jewish inspiration has to be subsidized if we want people to broaden their horizons and engage. 

If our study tells us that fewer people are lighting Chanukah candles, do we set up higher fences to keep them out? Do we charge more for a product they don’t want? Or do we open wide the doors to Moses, trying to reach the unengaged and create a Jewish memory together?

The trouble is that often the Jewish community resembles mainline Protestants when it should resemble the Evangelicals. I refer to their mission-driven approach. Don’t expect people to just show up. Seek them out, offer them a taste of being Jewish — and do it for free.

We need to repackage the Jewish civilization since there is no single way to connect to the community. Some say we already know the remedy — Torah and its “hipper” version that’s found on new blogs and websites. But there are tens of thousands of Jews in this city who don’t care about Jewish meditation, Lubavitch shiurim, Limmud gatherings. The masses of uninspired Jews cannot relate to these approaches, which are therefore unpalatable to them.

The challenge is to find Jewish leaders who can talk “Jewish” without the God language. Work on easing the uninspired into Jewish civilization.  Give them a subsidized experience that can lead to creating that lasting Jewish memory.

If money is made available for joint programming involving different tribes, many will be motivated to come together.  Leaders of the various tribes should be encouraged to learn together in neutral settings. Diversity should be embraced not in the motto of “us and them,” but “us and others of us.”

Interfaith families? Forget about preventing intermarriage — many simply don’t want to hear sanctimonious sermons. Instead, let’s subsidize options for children of interfaith families — not because they can’t afford it, but because often it’s simply not important to them.

Israel is a great teaching tool, but there are many Jews who don’t feel this binding connection. We need a Peter Beinart speaking at Five Towns Modern Orthodox shuls and a Daniel Gordis speaking at Brownstone Brooklyn non-Orthodox synagogues.

When we sit around the table together, it’s the initial effort that inspires engagement. No one possesses the ultimate truth. The goal is to understand that many voices can be correct at once and they can all provide valid entry points into Jewish civilization.

Leonard Petlakh is executive director of the Kings Bay Y-YWHA.